Thomas E. Ricks: The Two Things Rumsfeld and I Agree On
I think Donald Rumsfeld was the worst defense secretary ever, and that I've written a whole book about the American military fiasco in Iraq 2003-06 in which he played a major role. So rather than review the arguments against him, I thought it might be more interesting to write about a couple of places in his book where I actually agree with him.
Most notably, I think that the former defense secretary is correct to say that it wasn't just the Bush administration that screwed up in Iraq, and that the U.S. military also must be assigned a big share of the blame. He is particularly interesting on the decision during the summer of 2003 to put Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez in charge of the U.S. military in Iraq, a move he now calls "inexplicable." He continues:
Whatever the rationale behind the decision, it later became clear that Sanchez had been put in a terrible position. The [assignment] ... called for a senior military official with far more experience. That the Army leadership, with the agreement or acquiescence of CENTCOM and the Joint Staff, slotted him for the top command post was a serious misassessment....
I do not recall being made aware of the Army's decision to move General Sanchez into the top position.... To my recollection, the chief of staff of the Army and CENTCOM leadership did not bring the relevant plans to my attention.
I am not one who thinks that if only the Army had been given more troops in Iraq, everything would have worked out more or less OK. Given the lousy planning and poor leadership displayed, I think that if you had another 100,000 U.S. soldiers, you would have had more problems of the sort we saw, with the Army flailing around conducting huge, unproductive, disruptive "sweeps" and the subsequent widespread abuse of detainees. That didn't happen because of lack of troops, but because commanders did not know what to do with the troops they had, especially when it came to interacting with Iraqis.
Another point Rumsfeld is right about is that that he should have stepped down after the Abu Ghraib scandal emerged in 2004. "More than anything else I have failed to do, and even amid my pride in the many important things we did accomplish, I regret that I did not leave at that point." After that point, he was indeed damaged goods.
Both his correct observations point to a larger flaw in the man, one that generally is not understood by people who only saw him on television. That is, as defense secretary, he was extraordinarily passive. He blustered a lot, but in actually making decisions, especially about personnel picks, he was slow to a fault. Just look at those paragraphs above about finding out that Gen. Sanchez was being put in charge in Iraq. Kind of makes you wonder just who was holding the top job at the Pentagon, and why he wasn't more proactively curious about major decisions being made about Iraq.
Likewise, throughout 2006, as central Iraq was engaged in a bloody civil war and most of Baghdad was ethnically cleansed, Rumsfeld dithered. He tells us now that he was worried about Generals John Abizaid and George Casey, the two top commanders in the war, but did he do anything about them? Nope. (He argues in the book that things were improving in Iraq because the Anbar Awakening got underway late that year, but that was no thanks to him, nor anyone else above the rank of brigadier general at the time, and there is no evidence that the province's awakening would have been sustained without the major policy changes -- most notably General Petraeus's decision to put the Sunni insurgency on the American payroll -- that followed after Rumsfeld, Abizaid, and Casey were booted.)
Rumsfeld, in retrospect, embodied the opposite of the old Teddy Roosevelt maxim: He spoke loudly and carried a small stick. He continues to do that in this strikingly dull book, which might better be called Not My Fault. Here's my scorecard of events and who he blames:
Tora Bora and bin Laden's escape Gen. Tommy Franks, maybe CIA
No WMD in Iraq? Well, Colin Powell gave the U.N. speech
Lousy postwar planning for Iraq Structure of U.S. government
Iraq problems, mid-2003 Gen. David McKiernan
Iraq problems, 2003-04 L. Paul Bremer
Iraq problems, 2004-05 Condi Rice
Iraq problems, 2006 Rice, Gen. John Abizaid, Gen. George Casey
Critical media coverage throughout Richard Armitage
To me, one proof of Rumsfeld's flaws is that not long after he left, the situation in Iraq turned around and Afghanistan was no longer neglected. Robert Gates arguably has been tougher on the military than was Rumsfeld, and certainly has fired more people. More importantly, he asks better questions. But he speaks softly and acts quickly, and that has given a relieved military the sense that it is being led by an adult.